The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 8/The Beasts' Confession to the Priest
THE BEASTS' CONFESSION TO THE PRIEST,
ON OBSERVING HOW MOST MEN MISTAKE THEIR OWN TALENTS. 1732.
I HAVE been long of opinion, that there is not a more general and greater mistake, or of worse consequences through the commerce of mankind, than the wrong judgments they are apt to entertain of their own talents. I knew a stuttering alderman in London, a great frequenter of coffeehouses; who, when a fresh newspaper was brought in, constantly seized it first, and read it aloud to his brother citizens; but in a manner as little intelligible to the standers-by as to himself. How many pretenders to learning expose themselves by choosing to discourse on those very parts of science wherewith they are least acquainted! It is the same case in every other qualification. By the multitude of those who deal in rhymes, from half a sheet to twenty, which come out every minute, there must be at least five hundred poets in the city and suburbs of London; half as many coffeehouse orators, exclusive of the clergy; forty thousand politicians, and four thousand five hundred profound scholars: not to mention the wits, the railers, the smart fellows, and criticks; all as illiterate and impudent as a suburb whore. What are we to think of the fine-dressed sparks, proud of their own personal deformities, which appear the more hideous by the contrast of weaving scarlet and gold, with what they call toupets on their heads, and all the frippery of a modern beau, to make a figure before women; some of them with humpbacks, others hardly five feet high, and every feature of their faces distorted? I have seen many of these insipid pretenders entering into conversation with persons of learning, constantly making the grossest blunders in every sentence, without conveying one single idea fit for a rational creature to spend a thought on; perpetually confounding all chronology, and geography even of present compute, that London hath eleven native fools of the beau and puppy kind, for one among us in Dublin; beside two thirds of ours transplanted thither, who are now naturalized; whereby that overgrown capital exceeds ours in the articles of dunces by forty to one; and what is more to our farther mortification, there is not one distinguished fool of Irish birth or education, who makes any noise in that famous metropolis, unless the London prints be very partial or defective; whereas London is seldom without a dozen of their own educating, who engross the vogue for half a winter together, and are never heard of more, but give place to a new set. This has been the constant progress for at least thirty years past, only allowing for the change of breed and fashion.
The poem is grounded upon the universal folly in mankind of mistaking their talents; by which the author does a great honour to his own species, almost equalling them with certain brutes; wherein, indeed, he is too partial, as he freely confesses: and yet he has gone as low as he well could, by specifying four animals; the wolf, the ass, the swine, and the ape; all equally mischievous, except the last, who outdoes them in the article of cunning: so great is the pride of man!
WHEN beasts could speak (the learned say
They still can do so every day)
It seems, they had religion then,
As much as now we find in men.
It happened, when a plague broke out,
(Which therefore made them more devout)
The king of brutes (to make it plain,
Of quadrupeds I only mean)
By proclamation gave command,
That every subject in the land
Should to the priest confess their sins;
And thus the pious Wolf begins:
Good father, I must own with shame,
That often I have been to blame:
I must confess, on Friday last,
Wretch that I was! I broke my fast:
But I defy the basest tongue
To prove I did my neighbour wrong;
Or ever went to seek my food
By rapine, theft, or thirst of blood.
The Ass, approaching next, confess'd,
That in his heart he lov'd a jest:
A wag he was, he needs must own,
And could not let a dunce alone:
Sometimes his friend he would not spare,
And might perhaps be too severe:
But yet, the worst that could be said,
He was a wit both born and bred;
And, if it be a sin or shame,
Nature alone must bear the blame:
One fault he has, is sorry for 't,
His ears are half a foot too short;
Which could he to the standard brings
He'd show his face before the king:
Then for his voice, there's none disputes
That he's the nightingale of brutes.
The Swine with contrite heart allow'd,
His shape and beauty made him proud:
In diet was perhaps too nice,
But gluttony was ne'er his vice:
In every turn of life content,
And meekly took what fortune sent:
Inquire through all the parish round,
A better neighbour ne'er was found:
His vigilance might some displease;
'Tis true, he hated sloth like pease.
The mimic Ape began his chatter,
How evil tongues his life bespatter;
Much of the censuring world complain'd,
Who said, his gravity was feign'd:
Indeed the strictness of his morals
Engag'd him in a hundred quarrels:
He saw, and he was griev'd to see't,
His zeal was sometimes indiscreet;
He found his virtues too severe
For our corrupted times to bear;
Yet such a lewd licentious age
Might well excuse a stoick's rage.
The Goat advanc'd with decent pace;
And first excused his youthful face;
Forgiveness begg'd, that he appear'd
('Twas Nature's fault) without a beard.
'Tis true, he was not much inclin'd
To fondness for the female kind:
Not, as his enemies object,
From chance, or natural defect;
Not by his frigid constitution;
But through a pious resolution:
For he had made a holy vow
Of chastity, as monks do now:
Which he resolv'd to keep for ever hence,
And strictly too, as doth his reverence.
Apply the tale, and you shall find,
How just it suits with humankind.
Some faults we own: but, can you guess?
Why virtues carried to excess,
Wherewith our vanity endows us,
Though neither foe nor friend allows us.
The Lawyer swears (you may rely on't)
He never squeez'd a needy client;
And this he makes his constant rule;
For which his brethren call him fool:
His conscience always was so nice,
He freely gave the poor advice;
By which he lost, he may affirm,
A hundred fees last Easter term.
While others of the learned robe
Would break the patience of a Job;
No pleader at the bar could match
His diligence and quick dispatch;
Ne'er kept a cause, he well may boast,
Abore a term or two at most.
The cringing Knave, who seeks a place
Without success, thus tells his case:
Why should he longer mince the matter?
He fail'd, because he could not flatter;
He had not learn'd to turn his coat,
Nor for a party give his vote:
His crime he quickly understood;
Too zealous for the nation's good;
He found the ministers resent it,
Yet could not for his heart repent it.
The Chaplain vows, he cannot fawn,
Though it would raise him to the lawn:
He pass'd his hours among his books;
You find it in his meagre looks:
He might, if he were worldly wise,
Preferment get, and spare his eyes:
But owns, he had a stubborn spirit,
That made him trust alone to merit:
Would rise by merit to promotion;
Alas! a mere chimerick notion.
The Doctor, if you will believe him,
Confess'd a sin; (and God forgive him!)
Call'd up at midnight, ran to save
A blind old beggar from the grave:
But see how Satan spreads his snares;
He quite forgot to say his prayers.
He cannot help it for his heart
Sometimes to act the parson's part:
Quotes from the Bible many a sentence,
That moves his patients to repentance;
And, when his medicines do no good,
Supports their minds with heavenly food;
At which, however well intended,
He hears the clergy are offended;
And grown so bold behind his back,
To call him hypocrite and quack.
In his own church he keeps a seat;
Says grace before and after meat;
And calls, without affecting airs,
His household twice a day to prayers.
He shuns apothecaries shops,
And hates to cram the sick with slops:
He scorns to make his art a trade;
Nor bribes my lady's favourite maid.
Old nurse-keepers would never hire,
To recommend him to the squire;
Which others, whom he will not name,
Have often practis'd to their shame.
The Statesman tells you, with a sneer,
His fault is to be too sincere;
And having no sinister ends,
Is apt to disoblige his friends.
The nation's good, his master's glory,
Without regard to whig or tory,
Were all the schemes he had in view;
Yet he was seconded by few:
Though some had spread a thousand lies,
'Twas he defeated the excise.
'Twas known, though he had born aspersion,
That standing troops were his aversion:
His practice was, in every station,
To serve the king, and please the nation.
Though hard to find in every case
The fittest man to fill a place:
His promises he ne'er forgot,
But took memorials on the spot;
His enemies, for want of charity,
Said, he affected popularity:
'Tis true, the people understood,
That all he did was for their good;
Their kind affections he has tried;
No love is lost on either side.
He came to court with fortune clear,
Which now he runs out every year:
Must, at the rate that he goes on,
Inevitably be undone:
O! if his majesty would please
To give him but a writ of ease,
Would grant him licence to retire,
And it has long been his desire,
By fair accounts it would be found,
He's poorer by ten thousand pound.
He owns, and hopes it is no sin,
He ne'er was partial to his kin;
He thought it base for men in stations
To crowd the court with their relations:
His country was his dearest mother,
And every virtuous man his brother;
Through modesty or awkward shame,
(For which he owns himself to blame)
He found the wisest man he could,
Without respect to friends or blood;
Nor ever acts on private views,
When he has liberty to choose.
The Sharper swore, he hated play,
Except to pass an hour away:
And well he might; for, to his cost,
By want of skill, he always lost;
He heard there was a club of cheats,
Who had contriv'd a thousand feats;
Could change the stock, or cog a die,
And thus deceive the sharpest eye:
Nor wonder how his fortune sunk,
His brothers fleece him when he's drunk.
I own the moral not exact;
Besides, the tale is false in fact;
And so absurd, that could I raise up
From fields Elysian, fabling Æsop,
I would accuse him to his face
For libelling the fourfoot race.
Creatures of every kind but ours
Well comprehend their natural powers;
While we, whom reason ought to sway,
Mistake our talents every day.
The Ass was never known so stupid,
To act the part of Tray or Cupid;
Nor leaps upon his master's lap,
There to be strok'd, and fed with pap,
As Æsop would the world persuade;
He better understands his trade:
Nor comes whene'er his lady whistles;
But carries loads, and feeds on thistles.
Our author's meaning, I presume, is
A creature bipes et implumis;
Wherein the moralist design'd
A compliment on humankind:
For here he owns, that now and then
Beasts may degenerate into men.
- Wigs with long black tails, at that time very much in fashion. It was very common also to call the wearers of them by the same name.
- The priest his confessor.